In recent years, the term “nanmin” (refugee) has found increasing usage as a suffix involving some short- or medium-term inconvenience. For instance, after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, well over 1 million “kitaku-nanmin” (return-home refugees)—were stranded at rail stations and at offices in Tokyo and environs because the transportation system and road networks were temporarily shut down or jammed.
Weekly Playboy (Sept 10) foresees the emergence of another new type of “nanmin,” perhaps as early as 2013. These are the “gasusuta nanmin” (gasoline station refugees) who can’t find a place to fill their tanks.
In 1996, Japan had nearly 60,000 service stations. That number last year declined to 37,743. The drop has been particularly precipitous in Tokyo, where over the above time frame outlets declined by about half—from 2,765 to 1,385.
Factors causing the decline in business included more intense competition, brought on by the increase in self-service stations from 1998; the overall decline in new car sales; and increase in eco-cars that consume less, or no gasoline—resulting in more stations going bankrupt or simply closing down due to unprofitability.
Next year, however, the number of stations is expected to fall even further when a fire prevention law that was passed in 2010 goes into effect.
“Most of the underground tanks used to store gasoline are 40 to 50 years old, and there are concerns they’ve become corroded,” a member of the Hazardous Materials Safety Office at the Disaster Management Agency explains to the magazine. “The tanks will be required to have internal resin coatings, leak detection devices and other safety functions.”
The source adds that outlets which fail to comply with the law will be ordered to cease operations.
Forty to 50 years ago coincides with the boom in motorization in Japan, a time when stations sprang up all across the country. Those older facilities, says a spokesperson for the National Petroleum Association, will have to spring for large outlays to comply with the law.
“According to our estimates, 17,600 underground tanks will be affected,” he says. “As the average gas station has four, that means about 4,000—some 10% of the stations in Japan—will be affected.”
The cost of replacing each tank is expected to cost 1.5 million yen, so a service station with four of the tanks can expect outlays of 6 million yen or more.
Upon further investigation it was learned the national government will provide a subsidy, but stations will still be expected to spring for one-third of the costs, or roughly 2 million yen.
The declining numbers are such that already in rural prefectures with few stands—such as 324 in Fukui, 327 in Saga and 383 in Shiga—many car owners are finding they have to drive to the next town to fill their tanks. And more unhappy stories are beginning to circulate of drivers who saw the lamp flash on their instrument panel warning of low fuel, but couldn’t get to a station in time, having their cars coast to a halt due to an empty tank.
Gas stations, Weekly Playboy’s writer points out, served as a key “lifeline” in Tohoku following the March 11, 2011 disaster, supplying fuel and in some cases foodstuffs as well. And considering that the taxes collected from the petroleum products they sell amount to nearly 3 trillion yen per year, shouldn’t the government be a bit more supportive of efforts to keep the stands in operation—instead of driving them out of business?